When God Grabs You By the Balls

I'm not a doctor but I'm an expert. In the locker room, guys exchange a wealth of age-old wisdom. A couple of times, I reset broken noses. Usually my own, but once my friend Gabriel was in bed with my friend Josephine and accidentally kneed her, and I reset her broken nose. She's still complaining, but it would have worked if she'd kept the tape on.

I've been "playing" judo since I was a kid. A typical city kid thing, no room for soccer, and more about fighting. For me, it was the human contact. My parents weren't cuddly—it could be that I was just too dirty. The sensei checked our feet before Judo, and to pass inspection, I'd rub the blackened skin off my ankles. Hmm, maybe I should say that this was TRIBECA in the '70s.

The cups we wore were those triangular jobs, which were the wrong shape entirely— by the time I went back to Judo, early 90s, the "banana" cups were on the market. Since then, the bananas have been improved—flexible side panels—but cups still don't fit, and they "pinch," and in Judo, cups are theoretically illegal, and, well, if you're a samurai, there's something effete about stuffing a bulge into a jockstrap, which looks a lot like a g-string.

Enter George, an old Judo guy. His theory: the cup prevents the balls from moving. If you get hit in the balls when you're "freeballing," your balls jump out of the way. Not a doctor, but George was an expert. So, for me, no cup. Ten years of competition Judo. Worked OK. But I did fuck up my back.

Enter the Hag Balans kneeling chair. Six hundred bucks.

Worked OK.

Then I had another kid, my second. This one, a boy. Not once had my daughter kicked me in the balls. My son: twenty times a day—sometimes when I was lying there sleeping. An evolutionary adaptation, I'd proudly assess—which didn't amuse my wife. (Oh, should I say how long I've been married? Since before my own birth.)

Late one night: I was in front of the computer, sitting on the Hag, kneeling really, when I said to my wife, "I gotta get out of this fucking chair."

My balls hurt. They'd been hurting for about a week. The chair felt like it was pulling on them. Also: no cup, etc, and I'd spent a weekend at Grandma's pulling up bamboo stumps.

Five more minutes on the chair. Midnight until 12:05. Then I felt this pain.

I got out of the chair—kind of hunched over and laughing. I called to my wife, "My ball, it hurts so bad, I think I'm gonna pass out!"

The internet was up, so we investigated. Seemed there was a very small chance I'd had this thing, a torsion, which neither of us had ever heard of. Usually, a torsion is something that happens to infant boys, or boys in vitro. But once in a while it happens to a grown man, and the intervention is swift and decisive. Your ball has disconnected, flipped over and corkscrewed into your torso, and if you don't have the tubing untangled, your ball is as good as dead, and a dead ball has to be removed. I once saw my uncle Bud cut the balls out of a piglet and toss them to his hound, who didn't chew but mushed the balls against the top of his mouth with his tongue. Given the prospect that by morning my ball would be of no use to anyone—with the exception of nearby hounds—I got my hunched self into some clothing, and lurched into the night. My wife had to stay home with the kids. She stood in the door and waved—

"Don't forget to call."

I got a taxi to take me to Saint Luke's-Roosevelt hospital—my kids were born at Saint Luke's, and I knew it was a sign I should be at peace with one ball. (My wife had already called her mother, who weighed in: "Your Uncle Jerry only has one ball!")

At the end of a very long hallway, I pushed past a pair of swinging doors and I was in the emergency ward; I didn't have a clear picture of where I was. A nurse took my arm, and asked if I could see; I told her that the pain was making everything white.

Years before, I'd been in the same emergency ward; I'd thought my daughter swallowed a dime (she didn't). Insurance, x-rays, consult, Saint Luke's-Roosevelt had made short work of the dime scare—but this time, I was really speeding through the checkpoints. Two reasons: The ER was empty; the nurses were sure I had a torsion.

The doctors were sure I didn't. When men have torsions they hop around screaming, which I wasn't doing. On a scale of one to ten, the doctors asked me, what kind of pain I was in? Eight point five, I said. They wanted to know if I'd ever felt a nine or a ten. Yes: a ten was a spinal injection, and a Judo injury that cracked my sternum, cracked my collar bone, broke two ribs, and collapsed my lung.

Off with the clothes and into the robe. The nurses curtained me off, and doctors, nurses, interns, and security guards filed in and felt my balls. Maybe two or three hundred of them. When they touched my right ball, I'd flip into the air, an anchovy.

1:20 a.m., a doctor came in, felt my ball. He told me I didn't have a torsion but they were going to do an ultrasound. It was bureaucratic "bull droppings" (exact words), but it'd be malpractice not to check. Someone wheeled me to an elevator, detouring to the vending machines on the way, and I met the doctor on another floor. He was a personable man, tall, charming, East Indian I think, and he casually discoursed upon my ailment: a small hernia.

I consented to allow six interns, young men, to observe. (Not much shaking at the hopo.) The doctor greased me up with the ultrasound jelly, and swished his tricorder over my balls; he watched the live feed on his screen. The testicles, he informed me, were attached to the scrotum by a "tiny flap of skin," which could break. When that happened, the testicle would invert and retract. There wasn't a known cause for the injury, which was, as best as medical science understood it, completely random.

"And thus is a torsion," he said, "which is not what you have."

Then, in tandem, the doctor and his six interns flinched, as if what they saw on screen was just too horrible to behold, yet too grotesquely compelling to disregard. And, elegant man that he was, my doctor lowered his gaze into mine—behind him, the interns also lowered their gazes, a barbershop septet—and he said, "Sometimes it just happens."

1:40 a.m., the doctor was racing me down the halls, pushing my gurney, calling out to people to prep the OR, to call the surgeons and get them out of bed. Nurses were running up to me with paperwork, which I signed as they ran alongside.

They wheeled me into a pediatric recovery room, deserted, where someone went over the procedure with me. There was a good chance I'd get a torsion on the other side, so they had to operate on both of my balls—malpractice otherwise. A few stitches—they showed me the threaded needle—and my balls would be fixed in place, and this would never happen again. If they found my right testicle was already dead, they'd remove it. Malpractice otherwise, and anyway a dead testicle would shrink and resorb into the body. No, I couldn't take it home in a jar, it would be medical waste—and I'd still have one left. Some men opted for a prosthetic—they were extremely realistic—but once the testicle was gone, few men felt the need for an implant.

The first doctor showed up—a handsome young Dutch man, gay I thought. He recapped the diagnosis, then the primary surgeon arrived, wearing a gray wool coat over his pajamas. "There is one urology emergency," he said, "and this is it." The nurses hooked me to an IV, and I asked the Dutch doctor to call my wife. He did. "We're about to operate," he said. Nobody told me I had good doctors, let alone great doctors, but I felt all right about them—the second doctor was a handsome, athletic Jewish man in his late forties, white at the temples—and what was I going to do? I needed a surgeon as soon as possible; the longer I waited, the more likely I'd have my ball ripped out.

"You've done this before, right?" I asked the doctors.

"Yes," said the older one.

As they transferred me from the gurney to the operating table—the OR was a small blue-gray room walled in equipment—I asked the older doctor if he could give me a few extra inches while he was in there, and he said he could. He offered his hand to seal the deal. I was beginning to feel the drugs, but I got my hand in place and pumped it up and down. Then he asked about my profession, and I said writer, and he pulled his hand away from mine like he'd been scalded—and I knew I wasn't getting my inches.

The anesthesiologist placed the mask, tightened it, and told me to inhale—something like plastic permeated my tongue, my chest, and my teeth. (My teeth kept hurting for months.)

I think each doctor got a testicle. The incisions were asymmetrical. The left one was neater: I suspect the Dutch doctor. In defense of the older doctor, the right side, he must have had to open the scrotum wider. The torsion was not mild, I would be told, but after the testicle was turned around and the twisted spermatic cord was unraveled, circulation was restored and my graying ball began to "pinken up."

The scars ran about two inches a side. My surgeons had wanted to be sure there was plenty of overlap for the two sides of my scrotum to knit back together. There was so much overlap that pockets of dried blood and pus formed within the ridge. My wife assured me that it would take a while for the scar to "resolve." Now, years later, the scars are so hard to find I no longer attempt it at cocktail parties. But my scrotum is different. As I told the doctor, on the follow-up, "it feels like someone opened a seam in my nutsack and took in about an inch." He gave me a puzzled look, not sure about me, and replied, "that's exactly what we did."

My balls are different like this: they're stitched into place. They don't move up when I'm standing on a precipice, and they don't move down when I'm loafing in a steamroom. There's a moment, when a man is aroused, that his balls move for the sweet spot, optimum efficiency—it feels like my balls are there all the time. And, I don't know if this is psychological or physical, I've developed an aversion to masturbation. My wife thinks that so much happened down there the nerves are hyper-sensitized; I wonder if the three hundred people who handled my balls had some effect. When I was a kid, I had a hamster, "Marvin the New Wave Hamster," who I put in an East Village group art show (the gallerist was a friend of my mother). Whole classes of children handled that hamster every day—and it was never the same. Once aggressive, Marvin had become affectionate, even needy.

In college, I was friends with this guy, Will. He would tell me of his conquests, and I'd be amazed. I considered myself part of a silent majority, the type of man who needed to get to know a woman, who needed affection—who needed everything to feel right. Will was the other type, the kind that gave us all a bad reputation, the kind that got a woman naked and was good to go. Since the operation, I've become Will. I newly understand an outlook that was once unfathomable. All that time I spent in martial arts, in ballroom dancing, in the gym, in the cult of tantric sex—all that stuff that compensated for a not-cuddly childhood, for a not-coziness with other people—now strikes me as preposterous. I used to have fetishes, curiosities, neurosis—but now I am without distraction, I know what to do.

Post-op, I woke up, reaching for the mask. My face was itchy, like I was coming back to life. My hand lifted, fingers unmoving, clay. My mind was all there, or so I thought, and I said to the nurse who was with me, "Luke, help me take off this mask."

The nurse had six hands, and she was pushing my one hand (the other was hooked up to an IV) away from the mask. I had to keep the mask on, she was telling me. But I wanted it off, I was telling her. It was inadvisable to remove the mask at this time, she told me. I kept fighting, even though she was moving faster than me and had more hands. Finally, she told me to wait just one minute, and I felt her disconnecting stuff that was attached to my head, stuff that I hadn't known was there. I saw that I was in a new room, on a new bed, laid in a semi-reclining position. The mask came off, and I went back to sleep.

I woke again at a few minutes after 5 a.m. Same room. Just me, except for one nurse who was sitting in a stall on the other side of a walkway. She was working on something. There was a clock on a rectangular pillar on the edge of the walkway. Empty beds receded into nothingness.

The building was burning down. I smelled smoke. No, it wasn't smoke—a fire alarm was going off. The nurse was looking at something on her desk. She didn't look up. I couldn't move.

"Your heart rate," she said, loud enough for me to hear her over the fire alarm. I didn't know what she was talking about.

She looked up, screaming, "Raise your heart rate!"

She was a white woman with short brown hair. She was heavy and had mean eyebrows.

"Raise your heart rate!"

I tried to breathe faster. It stopped the alarm.

The drugs still had a grip on me. I couldn't stay awake. I'd breathe fast, but after about a minute and a half, I'd fall asleep. A few seconds after that, the alarm would go off. I was made to understand that after 6 a.m., the alarm would no longer go off.

Every minute and a half, until 6 a.m., I fell asleep, the alarm went off, I panted to raise my heart rate ... then I fell asleep again. The nurse never got up. I wondered to myself if hell was like this. At 5:59, I fell asleep.

I woke again slightly after 10 a.m.. I was in a private room. There was an '80s flip-clock on the bedside table. They'd told me I'd be out of the hospital by 10 a.m. I'd assumed that meant I'd be out earlier, swaggering like John Wayne. I didn't think I could stand up. My balls were bound in a dressing. My balls were the size of a football. I didn't want to look. A nurse came in and told me not to look. She asked how I was doing, as if I should be doing better. I told her I had to go to the bathroom.

"Number 1 or number 2?"

"Number 1."

"You were supposed to go before the surgery," she said, accusing.

"I did."

"We can discharge you when you can go number 1."

I started getting out of bed.

"Are you sure you're ready for that, Mister Reed?"

I got to the bathroom, and went for my penis, which was available through a slot in a harness. I couldn't go. The nurse helped me back to the bed. A black woman, suddenly sympathetic.

The Dutch doctor had offered to walk me home, if need be. When I next woke up, nearing 1 p.m., my wife was there. She said the Dutch doctor had come in to look after me while I was asleep. I got out of bed, and successfully urinated.

Six weeks, said the doctor, and you'll be back to normal. Six weeks, and I was walking around. Sometimes the scars hurt, and I'd get blue balls—which I'd always thought was a lie invented by horny men. The white-haired doctor explained that semen could get stuck in the kinks of the cord. When I don't have "release," which is a word I once heard a sensual masseuse employ (I was at a cocktail party), I have "discomfort." That, and way less jerking off, has reduced my sexuality to base instinct—a circumstance which I can thank for having greatly improved my sex life, and my marriage. Long massage? OK, I'm in. "I'm too tired to move," she says. "That's OK," I say, "you don't have to move." My friend Dimitri, very kindly, said they'd turned me into a race car—but actually, I'm a dog. At times, my wife is dismayed: when I'm heading out and she gives me a once over that ends on the crotch, "you're going out like that?"; at airport security when the Homeland Security woman keeps telling me to empty my empty pockets; when I adopt an attitude of entitlement, "there are seven billion people on Earth, I don't want to do this by myself." But even my wife, overall, prefers the new me. A pair of tight pants, and all is granted, all forgiven.

Post surgery, there was a six week ban on sexual activity. Six weeks, to the day, my wife was there to plumb the works. We were afraid I was too fragile for intercourse. But I was overeager. The closest I'd come to oral sex since we'd had kids was a coupon book she gave me for my birthday, which didn't work.

"That's it?" she asked.

Since then, the post-modern distance is gone; I lose myself in sex—I shudder, I groan, I do all this stuff I thought was melodramatic. I'd way rather have sex than workout—any chance I'm getting some action, I don't leave the house. I took a three-year break from martial arts—I didn't relish the notion of getting hit in the balls—and now that I'm back, I'm halfhearted. When the kids climb on me, one hand covers my groin—and I hate it when they walk up me for those "flips." As a kid, I'd ride a bike everywhere—a ten-speed, nice and relaxing—and now I'm back on one.

I'd worried that the recovery would interrupt my home life, that the kids—the boy, 2.5 and the girl, 5—wouldn't comprehend my lethargy, that they'd climb on me, and ask me about the mass of bandages between my legs. But they seemed to understand the gravity of my wound. By ostensible measure—the gauze, the groin—the operation was the same as the hypospadias correction my son had undergone the previous year, and the children viewed the matter in course. Perhaps a little late in life, their dadda had endured one of the trials that a boy may face as he embarks upon his childhood.

John Reed is an author, essayist and poet. He teaches at The New School.

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]